Relapse In The Family – The Death Of Recovery Or Fertile Ground?
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“It is on the very ground of suffering that we can contemplate well-being.

It is exactly in the muddy water that the lotus glows and blooms.”

~ Thich Nhat Hanh ~

A family member’s descent back into alcoholism/addiction can raise the emotional soup of the family to boiling point. The same is true for an eating disorder or mood disorder relapse. In families, we are exquisitely sensitive to what is happening with one another and have the ability to set each other off on a hair trigger, so when something as anxiety-provoking as a relapse occurs, the perception of threat can be very high. Once our threat system is activated, it becomes difficult to settle down, think clearly and respond wisely. Emotionally charged reactions rather than considered responses tend to dominate relationship encounters and we are subject to behaving in ways that fuel the problem, rather than settle it.

When members feel threatened, good connection can get very compromised. Isolation, disconnection and emotional cutoff can fuel destructive behaviour to no end, as can the lack of emotional space and poor quality of connection that arise from being intensely and anxiously over-focused on. There is some evidence to suggest that the counter-point of alcoholism/addiction/eating disorders/mood disorders is connection, and working to preserve the capacity for connection in families during a relapse turns out to be a very powerful intervention indeed.

In the face of a family member’s relapse, we can either be swept up in the emotional storm or anchor ourselves firmly in it’s eye. There are pockets of calm, respite and safety that we can step into, and create for ourselves, if we get enough support and are willing to work at it. In these pockets, we can ground and settle ourselves so that we have some chance of responding rather than reacting, and retaining the capacity for connection when it is most challenging, and most vital.

Below are 10 tips for anchoring yourself in the eye of the relapse storm and preserving as much capacity for connection throughout. (For simplicity’s sake, this list references specifically the experience of addicts and their families, however exactly the same dynamics and principles apply where eating disorders and mood disorders are concerned).

1) Be open to what seeds of change may lay in the relapse

Relapse does not always mean the death of recovery. Relapse can be fertile ground for reflection,….an opportunity to get clear about what needs and triggers require better management next time round, and to come at recovery with renewed energy and commitment down the track. Few things motivate people in recovery like a relapse, and many a solid recovery foundation has been built on the back of a relapse. The fertile ground that exists here is on offer for both the addict and his family members,….whoever chooses to use the experience as an opportunity to grow.

2) Hold a realistic perception of recovery outcomes and pathways

Recovery is a process.Those who get clean and stay clean for the rest of time are amongst a small minority. The addict’s brain is wired for using, his pleasure and reward centres primed for chemical relief. It takes a long time and a lot of hard work to create alternative neural circuitry, and for reliable alternatives to be found when seeking relief, pleasure and reward. Because of this powerful neurochemistry, slips and struggles are very often par for the course.

3) Seek out good support for yourself

Families of addicts often underestimate how much support they need, and focus on getting their loved one support, but one of the best ways to support your loved one is to be well-supported yourself. Whether it be through friends, a therapist, an Al-anon group, a sponsor or some other healing community, support is everything. Good support, and the relief and connection that flows from it, releases chemicals in the brain which are natural anti-depressants and buffers against the experience of feeling threatened and flooded with stress hormones.

4) Respect your own limits and set some boundaries

Boundaries are critical to both family members and the addicted person. When we don’t protect ourselves by setting limits, we are likely to feel particularly fearful, vulnerable and threatened, and when we allow ourselves to be harmed and depleted, not only do we feel terrible, but the addicted person tends to carry a heavy burden around that harm, which fuels further using. Boundaries can be tricky for families and this is an area where getting the right support can help immensely.

5) Actively attempt to lean into hope rather than despair, faith rather than fear

Fear and despair are inevitable during a relapse, so they need to be honoured, but also carefully managed and contained. Develop a daily practice for cultivating hope and faith, because both can be places to rest in and draw strength from. A family member who can operate more from hope and faith, rather than fear and despair can be a hugely settling, anxiety-neutralising force for both themselves, and others in the family, including the addict.

6) Practice exquisite self care….daily!

In circumstances like these, it can seem like self-care is an unnecessary luxury, but few things keep us grounded, sane, settled and responsive rather than reactive, like taking good care of ourselves. Sleeping when we are tired, eating decent food when we are hungry, doing some exercise and even having some fun are important, especially during a family crisis. And for those who feel guilty about taking good care of themselves when their loved one is struggling, consider this…wellness sparks wellness. We don’t invite wellness by compromising our own. We inspire wellness by being well.

7) Stay focused on your own life responsibilities and leave the addict’s to him

Instinctually, we can be moved to abandon our own needs and life responsibilities, and in turn pick up the addict’s. This inevitably leads to feeling exhausted and resentful, whilst the addict feels like a hopeless burden, which is great fodder for using. When you can, stay in your own life space, so that the addicted person can occupy his. When we stay focused on our own life, we leave an open invitation for the addict to get focused on his. If we dive in to take over his responsibilities, whilst we may feel helpful, and temporarily relieve our own anxiety, we remove that invitation, disempower him and deplete ourselves.

8) Practice calming down and staying mindful

Calm is indeed a super-power, and nowhere more so than during a relapse. Cultivate calm. Become a mindful observer of yourself in this set of life circumstances. Just the act of observing ourselves, rather than being completely lost in all the emotion, increases our executive functioning, including our capacity to manage strong emotion. At the same time, activity in our limbic brain, where strong emotion arises and our threat system is housed, decreases. Whatever helps you breathe deeply, calm down and be mindful in the present moment,….meditation, yoga, surfing, bushwalking…it really doesn’t matter what it is. All that matters is that you do it!

9) Surrender control. Having any was only ever an illusion anyway.

One of the most difficult things about a loved one’s relapse is the experience of being powerless. Our fight against the reality of how little control we have over so many aspects of life is wired into us in such primal ways, and human beings will do anything and everything in order to avoid this inescapable fact of our existence. Family members of relapsed addicts can access a grace that is all too often illusive, if they are able to accept that they cannot control the situation. We have power over ourselves, but attempting to control the addict or determine his outcomes only intensifies things, and can invite a reciprocal push-back against control from him, in the form of increased using. As much as possible….surrender, accept, let go…as counter-intuitive as they are, these tend to yield far better outcomes than control.

10) Steer clear of criticism, blame, lecturing and character assassinations. Opt for kindness and respect instead.

This seems like a no-brainer, but it really can seem like a good idea to tear strips off the addict. The impulse to ‘wake them up’ or ‘knock some sense into them’ with a good ear-bashing can be strong, but the result can be devastating. Just below the surface of the anti-social behaviour and questionable choices of your addicted love one, is a fragile person who already feels absolutely awful about themselves, and is desperately trying to find a way to feel better. Any attempts to reach the person via criticism or verbal beat-downs more often than not serves only to further shatter an already shattered person. Kindness and respect go an awfully long way, and open opportunities for connection rather than shut them down.

Preserving the lifeline of connection allows us to stay open to love, and relapse in the family offers us the seeds from which we can grow the capacity for a type of love that dispenses with control, clinging and fear, and slowly replaces them with grace, maturity and hope. Anyone in the family who is willing to work on this effort is an incredible asset to their relapsed loved one, whether they be suffering from alcoholism, an addiction, an eating disorder, or a mood disorder. This kind of love and connection become possible when we anchor ourselves in the eye of the relapse storm, where we can settle down, ground ourselves and become mindful. This is the place from which we can respond rather than react, and be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

About Anna Lloyd

Anna Lloyd is a Family Therapist at Byron Private and a Clinical Psychotherapist in Private Practice in Sydney’s Inner West, working with individuals, couples, families and groups. Trained in Gestalt Psychotherapy, Bowen Family Systems Theory and Systemic Family Constellation work, Anna is passionate about family systems and the power of systemic approaches to recovery and wellness. Specialised in Addiction Recovery/Addictive Family Systems, Anna brings 15 years of experience living and practicing the work. She is strongly committed to trauma-informed therapeutic approaches, and values warm, holistic, body-inclusive, life-affirming therapy grounded in mindfulness, practical wisdom, and the science of relationship systems and the brain.